Are Stolen Bases Important in Baseball Handicapping?

Baseball Player Sliding in to Second Base With a Yes No Checkbox Over His Head

Baseball handicappers have more information available today than they’ve ever had in the past. You have advanced statistics and metrics like WAR and zone defense, and every traditional statistic imaginable is available with a quick internet search.

Home runs are up and stolen bases are down. Teams are being built to focus on the long ball seemingly more than ever, and you see fewer stolen base threats than in past decades. All of this leads some baseball handicappers to ignore stolen bases. I’ll be discussing more about this below.

Ignoring Stolen Bases

Time is important to baseball handicappers just like everyone else in the world. If you have to spend an extra five minutes looking at stolen base statistics for every game in the schedule, it adds up quickly. This makes it easy for most handicappers to decide to skip stolen bases.

The average sports bettor might consider the top five or 10 stolen base threats in the league and ignore everyone else.

Here’s the problem with doing what average sports bettors do—the average sports bettor loses money, and if your goal is to be a winning sports bettor, you simply can’t afford to do what average bettors do.

I’m a firm believer that you can be a winning baseball handicapper, and the way to do it is to outwork lazy and average bettors. This means that stolen bases are important. A stolen base in an important game situation can swing the outcome of the entire game.

You need to include stolen bases when you’re handicapping baseball games, but you need to make sure you’re considering everything about them to get the most benefit of the extra time. If you read further on, you’ll find some things about stolen bases that most handicappers ignore.

Rule of Thumb

The general rule of thumb is that a player needs to be successful on at least two-thirds of their stolen base attempts to be effective. In other words, he needs to be successful 66.7% of the time to have a positive influence on his team’s chances of scoring an extra run.

While this makes quite a bit of sense based on the fact that a runner on second base is more likely to score than one on first, a player that gives up an out in one out of every three stolen base attempts isn’t what I’m looking for in most cases.

Though I don’t have statistical data to back this up, I use 70% as the cutoff when I handicap baseball games. I’ve developed my baseball handicapping system over many years, and 70% works best for my system. It might not be the best number for your system, but if you don’t use stolen bases now, I suggest starting at 70%.

Everyone bets on baseball games differently, but I want to share how I use the 70% success mark to help you decide how to use stolen bases in your system.

The first thing I look at is how often a player attempts a stolen base. A player that only attempts one stolen base every 10 to 20 games doesn’t influence my handicapping.

In other words, a player that attempts less than 16 to 20 stolen bases a season is usually ignored.

Once I identify players who’re likely to attempt stolen bases, I divide them into two groups.

  1. The first group includes players who attempt some stolen bases in important situations. But the players in this group generally don’t run a lot.
  2. The second group includes the players that attempt to steal bases far more often.

The truth is that the line between the two groups is something I’ve developed a feel for over the years, so I can’t tell you exactly where the line is. As a general rule, if a guy steals 30 bases or more per year, I include him in the top group.

I look at the players in the top group and see who attempts stolen bases the most and if they’re successful 70% of the time or more. If they’re successful on less than 65% of their attempts, they have a negative influence. Everyone between 65% and 70% is ignored because the influence is close to neutral.

The only exception is a top end stolen base threat like Billy Hamilton. He is a truly disruptive force when he reaches base, so I handicap his team a little different than most. The truth is that he doesn’t get on base enough, so he doesn’t change as many games as other players. And there are very few players that fall into this category of base stealers.

Pitchers

Once I identify the players I need to handicap based on stolen bases, I make adjustments based on two things. The ability of the opposing team’s pitchers and catchers to limit the effectiveness of stolen bases is important.

Each pitcher has a unique skill level of holding runners close to first and limiting their jump. Some pitchers are very good at this, while some are terrible at it. One of the worst is Jon Lester. He simply doesn’t throw over to first and gives an edge to good stolen base players.

The top end base stealers are still going to run, even when the pitcher does a good job. But their success rate is usually lower against the best pitchers when it comes to holding runners. On the other hand, the worst pitchers make average base stealers look like all-stars.

MLB Pitcher Throwing a Pitch

The severity of the adjustment you need to make is based on how far from average the pitcher is on either side of the equation.

This might seem like a great deal of work based on everything you’ve learned so far. But, once you do the initial work getting your stolen base system incorporated with your baseball handicapping system, you’re going to find that most games are neutral.

Average stolen base players combined with average pitchers and catchers can mostly be ignored in your handicapping. The key is identifying the outliers and adjusting your handicapping when you find them. Speaking of catchers, they play an important role just like pitchers. Learn why in the next section.

Catchers

The main statistic to consider when handicapping catchers in the stolen base department is their caught stealing percentage, but it’s not the only thing to consider. You also need to look at how many total stolen base attempts are made against them in comparison to other catchers.

A catcher that fewer players attempt to steal on is often more valuable than one with a higher caught stealing percentage. The truly great defensive catchers combine a high caught stealing percentage with a low attempts rate.

MLB Catcher Throwing the Ball

When you compare catchers, make sure you’re making a true comparison. The easiest way to do this is to divide stolen base attempts by the innings they catch. This creates a percentage that gives you a true comparison from catcher to catcher.

You also need to consider the pitcher that the catcher is working with in each game. The best defensive catcher in the world struggles to catch base stealers when the pitcher can’t hold them close to first and limit their jump.

Team Play

Stolen bases are individual statistics, but you also need to consider the tendency of each team overall in the stolen base department. Some teams simply don’t steal many bases because they’re built on power or have a management philosophy that doesn’t believe in giving outs away on stolen base attempts.

One important thing to remember is, even on a team with a management philosophy against stolen bases, a single player may still be a stolen base threat.

You don’t see as many true speed threats in baseball like it was 20 or 30 years ago, but there are still a few guys that can change a game with their speed on the base paths.

Conclusion

The bottom line is, if you want to be the best baseball handicapper possible, you have to consider every detail and statistic that you can. Yes, this includes stolen bases.

You need to look at the players on each team that could potentially change the game by stealing bases, but you also need to consider the ability of the pitchers and catchers to limit stolen base opportunities.

Stolen bases aren’t as important as they were at one time in MLB, but they still have a place in handicapping games.